Widziadlo – a mysterious ambient black metal outfit from Poland – released their debut LP ‘Void’ in 2017. I was initially asked to give this one a spin in light of my discussion of Darkspace’s ‘Dark Space II’. And whilst there are certainly some stylistic similarities what is most remarkable is how just a few tweaks here and there can be the difference between an ear catching experience and a boring, pointless slog. ‘Void’ is one of those albums that calls into question our common understanding of ambient black metal, to the point where the phrase may even be a misnomer. At its core ambient music is just that; a means of creating an atmosphere through diverging tones and layers of sound, at the expense of formal structure or rhythm. But even if this holds true, that doesn’t prohibit any form of imagination or excitement within music widely considered to be ambient.
And this goes for black metal artists and their treatment of this clunky genre. Our understanding of what ambient black metal is capable of could be so much more than the structureless pisstakes of Xasthur and Leviathan. Ambient music at its best often couches complex and highly structured ideas hidden within music that initially strikes one as simple repetitions of the same theme. Opening number ‘Gateway’ for instance, with its gradually unfolding arpeggios set to a longform composition that gradually takes shape beneath it is essentially black metal’s answer to Klaus Schluze’s ‘Timewind’. And this represents the trick to good ambient music (not the only trick mind). If prog is about making complex ideas seem complex, shoving every single technique and weird time signature in the listeners face, then ambient is about making the complex feel simple. Intricate layering of instruments, unusual yet intuitive chord sequences that take over ten minutes to unfold and make sense in the listener’s mind, all must be smuggled beneath a wash of homogenous atmospheres and tones that one could easily mistake for minimalism.
For this reason, the music sinks in at a more primal level. The brain registers ideas beneath the purely conscious. Ambitious music of this ilk gets under the skin precisely because the nuts and bolts of the music theory behind dictates the more prominent aesthetics at the surface level. It’s not force feeding us an abundance of musicality for the sake of it, nor is it wasting our time with endless texture without purpose. Both are perfectly poised to complement each other.
Whilst the building blocks are most heavily rooted in black metal – the vocal stylings, the drums, the guitars – they are informed by an unfortunate tendency to indulge in post-rock’s over-reliance on dynamics to fill out the length of the album. When the meat of the music gets going it’s a joy to listen to; simply because Widziadlo do not squander their ideas with lack of direction. But interludes and builds can sometimes be too long in the arriving. One feels that this release may have benefited from being an EP with the length trimmed down slightly. But these are chips on an otherwise immaculate piece of stonework.
Anyone vaguely taking note of the UK indie scene will have come across Cold in Berlin at some point. They are one of those bands with a cohesive, distinctive style that bears gifts for many stripes of alternative music; from post punk, to indie, to goth, there’s even a smattering of hardcore punk in there. But…there has always been a marked doom metal shade there as well, dulling the pallet, and it’s been growing in recent years to reach fruition on 2019’s LP ‘Rituals of Surrender’. This is an album of tone and mood over musicality. The bass has been given full reign to fill out the sound and drive the central riffs. The guitars add milestones of simple melodies and accents to allow the listener to situate themselves.
Maya’s emotive vocals are somewhat restrained on this album. They soar above the filthy guitar and bass tones with elongated syllables, working their way through oft repeated phrases of varying intensities; ultimately amounting to ritualistic chants that at least live up to the album’s title. Although they are melodically rather minimal, they are the key driver of the music and – as they are kept at roughly the same pitch and key throughout – act as the backbone to the album.
Beyond that, the half-music droning chords, simple arpeggios, and stop/start drums merely accompany these pained liturgies. For that reason a key feature of the band’s artistic expression comes through in dynamics as much as it does in tone. In stripping back the luxuries of more complex music it allows the musicians to focus on the virtues of one or two aspects of their sound to the full. The focus is not on crafting riffs or original chords sequences, but rather in supressing such things beneath a simple minimalism. The droning chords – usually repeated liberally – are brought to a cacophony of noise before being contrasted with gentle, clean passages.
This is a gloomy album. Gone are the upbeat dance tempos and bittersweet almost-pop songs of earlier years. In is slow as fuck doom not-quite-metal as a backdrop to depressive ballads of despondency. The appeal of this album rests more in what it leaves out than what is included. In a way similar to Jex Thoth, it feels like something is missing or unfinished. But if one makes peace with this it creates the mental space to focus on the virtues of what is there, and what can be achieved through self-limitation. Minimalism is becoming a lost virtue. And it is encouraging to see a well-established act like Cold in Berlin approaching it head on and with at least a degree of imagination.
UK death metal now with London’s Decrepid,…very UK death metal. Their debut LP ‘Osseous Empire’ released in 2015 is a summation of why UK death metal never got itself on the map in the same way as other scenes. It’s serviceable enough. No one gets up in arms about it (unlike Cradle of Filth for instance), but it never raised the game for the genre. ‘Osseous Empire’ may be a modern album, but it seems weighted by the average history of my country’s contributions to the genre (notable exceptions aside). There’s a frantic, thrashy drive at the core of this album, sometimes evolving into a lackadaisical Suffocation esque pace, sometimes shifting sideways into more melodic territory; and to their credit, this is where they really shine.
And this is what makes this release all the more curious despite its run of the mill death metal pretense. Decrepid seem to be insistent on sticking with these boring, flat thrash riffs to the point where it’s almost baffling. They’re a competent band, with a mastery of their instruments and a fat mix to showcase this. Further, their understanding of melody and layering of riffs is apparent at scattered spots throughout this album. But they either felt the need to offset this with long stretches of rehashed Slayer riffs or simply did not have the stamina to build a more interesting finished product out of this fertile soil.
Take the least interesting aspects of Suffocation and Incantation, vocals included, dilute it yet further with seemingly endless shredding, and that’s pretty much what Decrepid are serving up on ‘Osseous Empire’. I will offer one disclaimer to this rather inane write up. The fact that in places the meandering power chord chugging is dwelt upon just a little longer than good taste dictates, and the fact that the opening riffs of ‘Concussion’ provide the promise of more imaginative music, even just as a potential, makes for an interestingly tense listen at times. One begins to think: ‘that chord has been dwelt on for a little longer than one would expect, I wonder if they are going somewhere with this’. And sometimes they do, and a cool little melody takes shape, or a decent piece of lead guitar work. But alas and alack, it’s not enough to save this album from being another chapter in death metal’s Big Book of British banality, but credit where it’s due I guess.